For those of you who have gone through CH-BOLC in the last decade, you know our classrooms in the schoolhouse are named after the Four Chaplains. We literally spend our days surrounded by their memories. Their story of heroism is one worthy of the generations and they provide a shining example of what a chaplain ought to do for his or her Soldiers.
The four men honored as the Four Immortal Chaplains would doubtless have eschewed the kind of praise their actions have won over the years, arguing that they were just men doing God’s work on earth, but their story will be a source of inspiration and an example of true honor and bravery for all years to come.
The Four Immortal Chaplains came from different backgrounds and religious faiths, but the bond of goodness and friendship that bound them together made them spiritual brothers united in the face of a common fate. George Lansing Fox was a Methodist minister who had already fought heroically and been wounded in World War I; Father John Washington was a young and scrappy Catholic priest who cheated on his eye test in order to qualify for the Army; Clark Poling was a Dutch Reformed minister who left his young family and his famous evangelist father to serve; and Alexander Goode was a brilliant Jewish rabbi consumed by a mission to promote universal brotherhood among all men of all religions. Each man had not only joined the services as chaplains after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had each adamantly pursued a combat post overseas. They never made it to the front, finding themselves posted on the USAT Dorchester as she made her way from the nation’s east coast, through Topedoo Alley, to Greenland in early 1943. German U-boats lay in wait underneath the icy waves of the North Atlantic, and on February 3, 1943, the U-223 fired a torpedo which sent the Dorchester to the bottom of the ocean. It was one of the worst naval disasters in American history, as over 900 men went into the icy sea, two-thirds of them to their deaths – in part due to highly questionable orders from the transport commander who delayed any rescue effort. Among the dead were the four chaplains, who live on in spirit thanks to their heroism on that awful night.
The first half of the book describes the inspiring lives these four chaplains led before joining the army during World War II and the remarkable bond they seemed to share once fate brought them together. The remainder of the book details the tragedy of the Dorchester and the inspiring actions of the chaplains in reaction to the disaster. Drawing upon scores of personal and videotaped interviews with survivors and rescuers, Kurzman takes us back to that awful night and details the heroic acts of the Four Immortal Chaplains as they aided and supported the men around them, encouraged and inspired them with the power of their faith, and selflessly gave their own life jackets to others before going down with the ship – arm in arm and united in prayer.
In a sense, this is just one famous act of heroism among untold numbers of selfless acts that the world will never even know about. The story of the Four Immortal Chaplains has a special meaning and significance, though. They are a symbol of humanity’s greatest hopes, an example to all those who wish for a world of peace where religion unites rather than divides those of different faiths. Even before World War II came to an end, they were honored in the form of a postage stamp bearing their likenesses (normally, a person cannot be so honored until ten years have passed since his death), and their images still adorn the stained glass windows of many chapels and secular institutions, but it is their indomitable spirit of heroism, brotherly love, and good will that speaks most strongly to us today. Their legacy lives on as a shining beacon of light in a modern world darkened by religious conflicts and the evils of terrorism.
I do not consider it a coincidence that I received notice of winning this book when I did. Our world is again torn apart by religious divisiveness. Perhaps, we should all read the book together and see what can be accomplished when we put aside our differences and work for a greater good.
Pro Deo Et Patria
Upon the recommendation of a friend, I am reading a book called Words for Warriors: A Professional Soldier’s Notebook. There is a chapter about Chaplains and I want to share a piece of that section as a reminder to myself what a Chaplain should be and a reminder to others what Chaplains do.
First, no substitute exists for a sense of calling to the chaplaincy. I know of no civilian equivalent for the ministry roles which we fulfill, be it chaplain or chaplain assistant. As participants in a total institution, Ranger [Chaplain] ministry team members wear the same clothes, conform to the same physical standards, and suffer the privations as do their parishioners. No other group of pastors or their helpers can make this claim. Thus, military ministry retains a unique texture, replicated nowhere else. Second, we must be able to demonstrate both technical and tactical expertise. Whether the task be preparing a sermon, safeguarding a chapel offering, preparing a religious support estimate for a contingency operation, completing a thirty-mile foot march, or moving to a grid location with map and compass, we cannot allow our ministry team to fall short. Remember: we will relentlessly pursue excellence in all things. Finally, we must retain a healthy balance between our dual roles as pastors and Ranger [Soldiers]. Let there be no doubt that we are, first and foremost, a pastoral team committed to excellence in ministry. However, we are also Rangers [Soldiers] who must be able to function alongside other Rangers [Soldiers] in combat operations. We must be at once spiritually and physically fit and able to care for ourselves, as well as others, both in peace and war. ~CH (LTC) Steve Berry 75th Ranger Regiment
Enough said. It is a challenging ministry and one I am proud to be called to be part.
It’s the day after Christmas and all through the house….okay, corny but true. Right now I have a sleeping four year old and a sick wife so I have time to sit down and read, reflect, and relax. Since I am part of the Common English Bible tour this Advent/Christmas, I thought I would add a few more of my thoughts on the CEB for what they are worth.
When I get a new translation, I read three passages slowly and carefully, with a Green NT near at hand, to give me a feel for the translation and the translation theory: I read the Sermon on the Mount, I read Romans 3, and then I read James. Usually I can get a good solid feel for the translation from these three passages.
I did this recently with The Common English Bible (focusing on the New Testament). I like what I see here and I’ll keep this translation near me on my desk.
- What do you think of modern translations? What is best for public reading?
- What do you do? How do you assess a new translation? Do you want something that sounds familiar or something that startles you by change and makes you to think anew about the text? Which translations do you find most useful today?
115 leading Bible scholars participated; ecumenical and mainline; field tested by 77 reading specialists in 13 denominations. It comes out completely in 2011, four hundred years after the KJB. The CEB will be useful and good for personal reading, public reading, and for classroom study. It will have the Apocrypha when completed.
Here are a few big summary thoughts:
First, it sides in general with an NIV or TNIV approach: it aims at accessibility, clarity and avoidance of unnecessary misunderstandings. Thus, it has “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” throughout. While some call this “inclusive” there is a solid fact suggesting this isn’t “inclusive” so much as “accurate.” Very often a “brothers” means “everyone” and not just “male Christians.” So that it is not an inclusive view so much as an accurate translation.
It has “human being” and “the Human One” instead of “Son of man,” and whether you like the former or not, the latter is often misunderstood. So, this rendering will push the reader to read more closely.
Second, this translation sometimes adds expressions to make the Bible clear where a more literal translation will prompt some to misunderstand. Some of these clarifications will be disputed, but I’d rather have an attempted clarification followed by discussion than as assumption that we are right when we are dead wrong. Thus, Matthew 5:44 has “those who harass you because of your faith” instead of the Greek’s ending with “harass you.” The “because of your faith” is added in order to clarify that the harassment was generated by faith and following Jesus.
At the end of the same paragraph we have “your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone” instead of just “complete” or, as in most translations, “perfect.” (Be perfect as your Father is perfect.) Here the perfection/completeness is seen, on the basis of solid contextual information, in the Father’s love for all.
Third, there’s a little New Perspective flash at times when it cames to translating “faith of Christ” (often translated “faith in Christ”) and the CEB has “faithfulness of Christ.” Thus, Romans 3:22 has “God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” and here we see a clear emphasis on the obedience of Christ. In 3:25 we have “a ransom that was paid” for the typical “redemption.” And then we have “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found” and this has been often understood more in terms of propitiation.
James 2:1 has the “faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ” — and there again we have a “faith of Christ” taken to refer to Christ’s faithfulness and not our faith in Christ. But in the famous justification passage of James 2:14-26 they translated “showed to be righteous” instead of “justified.” Not all agree, but having a translation like this will yield to fruitful study and inquiry.
Fourth, there is variety: I’m happy to say the translators didn’t get too wooden. Sometimes the word is “righteousness” and other times it is “justice” and I’m not sure the rationale for each, but there’s two sides to the Hebrew term and therefore also to the background for the NT terms and I like this ambivalence and variety.
Fifth, everywhere the sentence structure is clean and clear; they’re doing their dead-level best to translate so that the Bible makes sense. I’m not sure I like “Happy” in the beatitudes, but I think as many will be helped by “Happy” as are led into confusion by “Blessed.”
The last chapter closes the book with a bit of irony. After all the questions he raised. After all the deconstruction that has gone on throughout this book Rob closes saying that when he prayed a prayer to became a Christian when he was young he could have known more or had better reasons or been more mature. He could tear that apart and invalidate his own experience but he says he won’t “deconstruct” that because although it wasn’t perfect it had validity. God could work through it all to do what God needed to do (p.194):
“Now I am well aware of how shaped I was by my environment, how young and naive I was, and how easy it is to discount emotional religious experiences. With very little effort a person can deconstruct an experience like that by pointing out all of the other things going on in that prayer, like the desire to please one’s parents and the power of religion to shape a child. But however helpful that may be, it can easily miss the one thing that can’t be denied: What happened that night was real. It meant something significant then and it continues to have profound significance for me. That prayer was a defining moment in my life.”
In Rob’s defense, many of us come to Christ at a young age when we see our friends begin to do it and this begins a life long journey to discover what it means to be a Christian. I wonder if it would be better to spend a lifetime discovering Christ before becoming a Christian? Rob raises and poses a lot of questions that lead off down rabbit trails but you know what – they are worth considering and debating and wrestling with. The Christian faith should be a living, breathing thing and not some dusty set of rules and beliefs that we recite from memory. I would rather see us wrestle with these questions and struggle with the answers. While we are struggling and wrestling, the Christian is alive in us and we are open to new possibilities and dare I say it – open to God. In the end, it appears that Rob believes that heaven and hell are real and a reality for all of us – it just depends on where.
What I believe Rob is doing in this book is to try and swing a pendulum. He believes some Christians don’t get it. They say God is love but their actions are hateful. So he wants to swing away from harsh, angry and judgmental Christians who want to stand on the street corner with a bullhorn and tell people they are going to hell. He wants to dismantle the idea that Satan is a little red man in little red tights running around in hell tormenting people. He wants to distance himself from many Christian stereotypes. Also, he wants to point out that God’s love is bigger than we can imagine so…what if?
This chapter has everyone’s favorite parable – The Prodigal Son. Why is it everyone’s favorite? I think because no matter how bad we are, when we come back to God, God lavishes grace and mercy upon us. We all can relate to this story and we all have a version of this story in our heads.
Rob points out that each son had a story in their head about the Father. The younger son’s story that runs through his head about his Father says that once you lose your worth you are no longer a son. You might be taken back as a slave but never as a son. The older son’s story believes that he has to slave away through his obedience in order to earn what the Father has. In both cases the Father is telling them another story. He is redefining their story about who the Father is through his actions and words. He is not a task master. He is good and kind and loving and mercifully unfair. The question is, whose story are they going to believe…the one in their head or the one the Father shows them and tells them?
So the question comes to each of us…will we trust our version of the story we have in our minds about God or will we trust God’s version? For example, if you grew up in legalism, will you accept that even if God shows you it is a false narrative? Or will you trust God enough to replace that broken story with one that is whole? Good stuff.
The only thing I thought was lacking about this chapter were a few of the implications about heaven and hell and God that Rob drew from this text. His point is that the older brother was living in his own sort of hell even in the midst of a party for his brother. “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party.” (p.176) As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t have that in mind (not that I am smart enough to figure that out…just giving my opinion) but Rob finds it there. He is trying to avoid the heaven is here and hell is there teaching (see middle of p.177). Instead he is saying that they can and do exist right in the middle of each other based on which narrative we choose to engage in and perpetuate. But then he goes right on to say that if you choose God and his love or refuse his love it will take people in two different directions. How can it be both ways? Am I missing something?
Now, about God, he paints the picture that God is either a radical and reactive guy who is loving of you one moment but if you don’t jump through certain hoops he will destroy you or that God is a God of love and mercy. Period. So God is either a father who would be arrested for abuse in our society or God doesn’t really ever have wrath and sin has no penalty, even though elsewhere he admits that is not really the case.
A question that has been asked throughout history is whether God loves everyone or is God inclusive of everyone? If we read scripture, it seems that God may not like certain groups of people (ie the Egyptians and all of the peoples in the Promise Land according to the OT). In this chapter, Rob is opening the door to a more inclusive God through several stories, questions and scriptures that seem to support his point. He starts the chapter with a friend of his who had a life changing encounter with Christ that got his life turned around. You have probably had a similar conversation with someone who told you about an encounter they had with Christ and it left you unsure if it was really real, if God would really do that or if they were actually mistaken. Maybe God is up to something. Maybe God is more inclusive than we thought? The door begins to open a crack.
Rob sets biblical precedent for his point that Jesus shows up in strange and often unfamiliar ways through the story of Moses striking the rock and water pouring out in Exodus 17. He mentions the connection Paul makes with this in 1 Corinthians 10, that Jesus was that rock. His point is that even though those Hebrews had no idea that rock was Christ he was present in their story anyway. The application he draws from that point is that Jesus is present in many ways and places and in the lives of people today in ways that we don’t even have a clue about.
I know some have leveled criticism towards Rob for this idea but I think it is true. I have encountered Christ many times only to look back on the experience and realize that it was an encounter with Christ (I didn’t realize it at the time). If I have those kinds of encounters, why wouldn’t others?
Rob appeals to the inclusivity of Christ in several ways:
- His work in creation – all things were created through Jesus Christ (p. 144-147)
- The teaching of the apostles (p.148-149) He quotes Colossians 1:27 “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery”. Here he leaves the mystery Paul is talking about here as Christ alone. That is not quite what Paul wrote. The verse finishes like this, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The mystery was not Christ alone but how Christ would work in us and through us and be present in our lives, as Christians, in a real and profound way. That part is left out. The verse when taken in part advances his point. Taken in context it doesn’t. It doesn’t work because Bell’s appeal here is to the inclusivity of God – Gentiles = all people. But here Paul is not writing to all people or saying Christ is actually in all people. He is writing to Christian Gentiles.
- The teaching of Jesus – Jesus died for the whole world…not just a small, select group of people (p.150ff). I think what Bell misses here is that he confuses the intention and mission of Jesus with the result of that intention and mission. Jesus intention was to die for and save all people. But the intention is not reflected 100% in the result of his ministry. Intentions never reflect the results 100%. Of course Jesus dies for the world but does the whole world accept that or have faith in Him? So his mission was for all but the result.
An interesting thing in the chapter is that Rob largely ignores (or at least overlooks) John 14:6 as he discusses whether God (and Jesus) are inclusive or exclusive. I have read that some people claim that Rob says there is more than way to come to God. I don’t see him doing that. Instead, I see him showing that Jesus was inclusive of all people who wanted to come to him. Jesus first came to reach the people of Israel but they largely ignored him so he reached out to Gentiles. I don’t see Rob implying that there is more than one way to God but rather that Jesus wants to reach all people. I do believe that there is more than one way to Jesus, however, and who is to say that there is not more than one way to God (okay, I can be a bit heretical from time to time).
Rob seems to imply that God can save anyone God wishes to save and this is another area of criticism. People take issue with this because of John 14:6 but I wonder if it is true – can God save anyone God desires? People would say no because of the Bible but then we are limiting God, aren’t we? When we say that God cannot do something, we are limiting what God can do. I am not saying it is right but I am saying it is worth thinking about. Bottom line in the book so far, I have been challenged in my thinking. It is sort of like going to seminary all over again. I have deeply held convictions and beliefs and the book is challenging some of them. Do I think Rob is a heretic? No. I am not sure we ever really get Rob’s opinion or beliefs – I think he is throwing things out there for people to think about and wrestle and if this is the case, then his critics have missed the point entirely.
So what about other religions? Are they equally valid with Christianity? Bell says the Jesus is still important, the cross is still relevant and that what you believe [in regard to Jesus?] is important. But still the door is wide, wide open to people of many faiths. This is the key part of this idea – the door is wide open and we play a role in reaching people of other faiths. Instead, what I see happening is Christians (in general) attack people of other faiths and say what they believe is wrong and we are right. We literally shove Jesus down people’s throats and then wonder why they reject us and attack us. I think Rob is opening the door for Christians to wrestle with our own beliefs in light of what others believe about Christianity and thus enter into a dialogue with not only others but with ourselves as well.
Rob ends the chapter with a great reminder. We are not the judge. We don’t call the shots. We don’t send people to heaven or hell. God does. I am glad for that because sometimes I need to be more graceful than I am. That is why I thought I would end this post on a positive note! If there is one strength in this chapter it is the reminder that God can and does work in unexpected ways and in the lives of people we might never pick. Let’s respect that and give thanks that God seeks the lost because at some point we were all in that position and God saw fit to lift us out of it and bring us life!
I think this is the best chapter in the book. No question. The middle of this chapter contains a very well stated and succinct take on God’s victory over sin and death and the implications that has on our lives. It is a chapter of hope. It is a chapter of love. Rob skillfully paints a picture of what sacrifice was about to the ancients and about the revolutionary movement Jesus Christ started. He lays out the importance of the cross and the end to the sacrificial system. He talks about the resurrection with skill and precision and makes some excellent connections back to Genesis and how the resurrection was really a new beginning for humanity. Good stuff. Rob writes about the injustice of the cross, not just the injustice to Jesus, but the injustice to us in a backwards sort of way…we didn’t deserve it but he did it anyway. This was all around a very well written and insightful chapter.
Rob goes into a discussion about how we view the cross and launches into this marvelous chapter. He talks about going to an Eminem concert and that has me thinking. There are not many people that would share going to an Eminem concert in a book on heaven and hell (unless he was talking about hell ). That didn’t bother me. It worked because Rob is talking about dying to live. Jesus talks about this when he shares that we have to turn our back on the things of this world so we can appreciate God’s life (eternal life). Eminem would be a good example of someone who has lived a worldly life and then turned his back to it and died to this world. Rob touches on this when he writes:
“Did Eminem stumble upon this truth? Did he, somewhere in his addiction and despair and pain, hit bottom hard enough that something died-the old, the hard, that which could never bring life in the first place? Did he stumble into that truth that’s as old as the universe – that life comes through death? Did he in some strange way die, and that’s why he is back? Is that why he wore the cross around his neck?” (p.136-137).
I willl admit that I am a bit troubled by this idea. Eminem continues to use vulgar and profane language in his music and he takes God’s name in vain often. Is this really a sign of someone who has died to live? I am not sure but it is worth thinking about.
In the end, the book is all about thinking and challenging our assumptions. I do not believe that thinking and wrestling with our understandings and beliefs is a bad thing. I think it makes our faith stronger and makes us better people. I am not sure I completely agree with Rob’s thoughts on Eminem but that doesn’t mean that I can’t wrestle with the idea behind the statements.
Just my thoughts.
How is this for a chapter title? At first thought, I would say the answer is “yes” because God is God and the creator of the entire universe. If God made everything, then God gets what God wants, right? Well, God gave us free will and to have true free will, God has to give up power or it isn’t really free will. If it is true free will, then God may not always get what God wants.
So with my initial thoughts out of the way, let’s go on to chapter 4. It is interesting that Rob begins this chapter with a brief look at what churches put out on their websites. He cites three different websites (thankfully the churches remain anonymous) that have specific belief statements laid out on the web for anyone to read.
- “The unsaved will be separated from God forever.”
- “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.”
- “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.”
Those are alarming statements but there is truth in each of them. As I stated in the previous chapter review, I do not know what hell is or whether hell is eternal but I do believe that eternal life will be in God’s presence. In some form or another, hell is not in God’s presence. That is a reality of God and one we must be aware of. However, Rob tackles these statements not to dispute them but to look at how they are perceived. It seems that churches (I am sure unintentionally) give off the impression that God intentionally sends people to hell. I do not believe that because we have choices to make and those choices are at times to reject God.
Rob lays out a series of either/or questions that could lead you down the path to conclude that God will be all inclusive, that God will protect and provide, and that at the end of it all God will take care of everyone because we know that God wouldn’t be uncaring, leave people on their own or give up on us. If you take this to its logical conclusion he is opening the door to God saving everyone, no matter what because he is framing salvation as up to God and God’s love and power to save to the exclusion (at this point in the chapter) of our accepting of that relationship. I understand the criticism that has been leveled at Rob about being a universalist. If you read the chapter to this point, it is easy to see that Rob is laying out a strong case that everyone will be saved in the end. It is a rosy picture but it also eliminates the just nature of God – if God is just than there has to be a consequence for belief or unbelief.
Before I go down that path, let’s get back to the case for everyone being saved. Rob does this in several ways starting on p.105:
- He lays out several views that people have had about when we are able to choose God, only this side of the grave or both before and after death (second chance).
- He appeals to Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenberg where Luther was humble enough to admit that God had the ability to do whatever he wanted to do in terms of salvation
- He makes the case that a loving God would seek us out “as long as it takes” (p.107). He sums the view up like this – “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (p.107)
- Appeals to scripture and God’s promise to renew/restore “all things” (Mtt 19, Acts 3, Col 1)
- Appeals to church fathers
- Appeals to what really gives God glory – suffering sinners or redeemed/reconciled sinners?
- Appeals to “serious disciples” who have held this view…that given enough time all would be saved
- Says that this view is “at the center of the Christian tradition” (p.109)
- Appeals to which makes a “better story” – hell forever or heaven forever. Heaven is better if more people/all people are there. Because that is a better story, maybe it is so.
- Appeals to the final picture in Revelation and how everything is finally made right. He doesn’t mention the chapters that precede that which talk about judgment of Satan and the wicked and being thrown into a fiery lake forever.
After making the case that God may save all eventually he back peddles pretty rapidly starting on p.113 with statements like:
- “Love demands freedom. It always has and it always will. We are free to resist, reject and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.” (p.113)
- “So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility. People take that option now and we can assume it will be taken in the future.” (p.114)
- He even lays out one of his primary questions again and then says we really don’t know – will God save all or will some perish forever? He says we can’t resolve that tension (p.115)
- Last, he lays out the BIG question – “will God get what he wants?” and implies we can’t answer that question but we can answer the question, “Do we get what we want?” (p.116) He says, yes we can.
I think what Bell is doing in this chapter is to give us a peak in the door of “what if’s” and humble us enough to say maybe there is more to the story than what we thought. I think too often we break down God and God’s nature into our understanding but then that is idolatry because we cannot begin to grasp the nature of God. We think we understand how salvation works but do we really? I think Rob lays out a case of the “what ifs” before giving a glimpse of his own position. At the very last minute in the chapter he tempers his view and ends it with some statements that contradict much of what he has been teaching and, I think, gives us his real view that God will not save all in the end because some will continue to choose otherwise. Will it be for lack of God’s love or power? No. It will be because God’s love allows choice and that choice must be honored even if it results in choosing death (p.117). After all, to be able to give true free will, God had to give up power or it would not be a real relationship. In giving up some power to allow us to have a choice, God risks that some people will reject God. It is sad but it is a reality.
I will admit that I was not looking forward to reading this chapter. I think it is an aspect of all of our personalities that we avoid talking about hell (except for some of the more fundamental folks who seem to focus heavily on hell). I have my own views on what hell is and I will share those thoughts a bit later. In the meantime, I want to share my impressions of this chapter and tackle a very heavy topic.
Before I dive into this chapter, I find it amusing that many of Rob’s critics actually approve of this chapter – well rather they seem to find less to criticize with this chapter than some of the others. I wonder why? You should note that I am making a broad assumption of a certain group of people whom I will label fundamentals. This is not to say that all people believe the same thing but there is a core group who fits this category that seem to use hell to the advantage of their message.
I will admit that my view of hell is a bit different than Rob’s view or impression of hell (though I did agree with him on his view of heaven and eternal life). However, to really get at an understanding of hell, we need to consider it from the perspective of the two halves of our Bible and Rob breaks down his view of hell into these categories. I will do the same for the purpose of my review of this chapter.
Old Testament Concept of Hell:
It would seem that the OT is quite vague when it comes to hell. Rob is also right that their conception for what took place after death was Sheol. That was believed to be a place all of the dead would go, not just the good or the bad. He is also right that the OT affirms the belief that God has power over life and death and is involved in what happens to people after they die. A criticism of this section that I have read involves an idea that Jews believed in a resurrection but Rob appears to avoid this idea. While it is correct that some Jews believed in a resurrection of dead (and a vindication of the righteous), this was a concept that developed over the course of centuries. A common Jewish understanding of righteousness and blessing was your reward for a good life happened in this world (read the book of Job to see this idea). There wasn’t a real concept of an afterlife beyond Sheol (read the Psalms).
I do not think this criticism is fair to Rob as some of the people are taking this out of context. There were Jews in Jesus’ day (the Sadduccees) who did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. To lump all Jews into a belief of an afterlife is not fair or in context. However, there were Jews who believed in a resurrection of the dead which would be life after life after death (N.T. Wright). It seems the concept of Sheol might have some validity after all (lay in bed and wonder what happens when we die since we will not experience resurrection until the end of this age).
With that being said, I do believe there are OT scriptures that do point to some form of eternal punishment that Rob does not address. Here is a small sampling of them:
- Isaiah 33:14: …who of us can dwell with everlasting fire.
- Isaiah 66:22-24:..look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched
- Daniel 12:2: …will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
So the above list is just a small sampling of passages that talk about fiery torment. They are also later additions to the OT as Jewish apocalyptic understanding developed (so the criticism that Jews believe in an afterlife is not valid because this concept developed over time). However, as Christians in general, we are a people who largely ignore the OT in favor of what Jesus says and the entire New Testament so let’s see how Rob views hell as described in the New Testament.
New Testament Concept of Hell:
Rob starts this discussion with the word “Gehenna” that is translated “hell” in the New Testament. He points out that this valley was used as a garbage dump in Jesus’ day. There is some controversy around this point. Some people see Rob saying that Jesus is talking about a literal Gehenna in this world outside of Jerusalem. I think Jesus was a great rabbi who would use the best visual images he could to get across his point. If people could look over and see a burning wasteland (one that was always burning) it would add some impact to Jesus’ words.
I could go through the NT and find passages that refer to judgment and hell – not surprisingly there are a few more passages that can be found in the OT but I am not going to do that. I think many of the passages are in a specific context so to take them out of that context and use them to describe hell would be wrong. Instead, I am going to summarize what Rob appears to believe about hell and go from there.
So what is Bell’s view of Hell?
- He believes we need strong words like hell for the strong emotions we feel in the face of anger. They are useful in our grief (p.72)
- He points to the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 to say that even in torment the rich man hadn’t figured out that he still needed to die to himself and that he hadn’t got it because he was still requesting Lazarus to serve him. Somehow he missed the point that he really wanted water because he was in torment.
- Hell doesn’t begin after we die (p.78). I agree. We can be so evil or so selfish that we create our own hell right here and now. That doesn’t negate the fact that, like heaven, hell is pre-existent someplace else simultaneously. He doesn’t mind that point being made about heaven both here and now and its continuity into eternity. He does say, “There is hell now and there is hell later and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p.79).
To be fair, he does say on p.79 that he is going to deal with those passages that deal with hell but don’t use the word. What he does there is to point to a bunch of passages that seem to say God judged people but still offered them hope. But those passages are exilic verses about the return and restoration of God’s chosen people. He is trying to show that while it appeared bleak and God had judged them and punished them that God still had room for them. The problem is, these aren’t verses about eternal punishment. These are verses about temporal, here and now punishments. So while they make the point he is making if you strip them from their context, a careful exegesis of them doesn’t support Bell’s thesis in this chapter.
He says, “failure isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.” (p.88). That is true if you are lucky enough to have survived the exile long enough to make it home and see the restoration take place. It is not so true if you were one of the guys who died back in Babylon angry at God for sending you away from home to be tortured and brutalized. So I agree that in one sense failure isn’t final otherwise none of us would have a chance. But there can come a point in time when our failures are final. A second way he tries to make this point is through Paul’s handing people over to Satan for correction in Paul’s letters to Timothy and in 1 Corinthians (p.89-90),
“It’s as if Paul is saying, ‘We’ve tried everything to get his attention, and it isn’t working so turn him loose to experience the full consequences of his actions….’ The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention.” (p.90)
I think that is exactly what Paul is saying there. But Bell assumes that handing people over to Satan always results in something good because the intention behind it was good. I don’t think that is the case. It is possible to hand someone over to Satan and them never come back because that person still has a choice of which way they will choose to go…closer to God or closer to Satan. While we hope the discipline works there is no guarantee. So seeing even handing someone over to Satan as a positive thing doesn’t really work out, in my opinion. That is not a hopeful place to be with someone.
Tim’s Concept of Hell:
Well, I know I have rambled all over this chapter. Heaven is not easy to fathom and I think hell is even less so. So what do I believe about hell? The easiest answer I can give is “I don’t know.” I have read some great images that describe hell but the bottom line is we really do not know. In my mind, an everlasting hell goes against the nature of a loving God. I find myself wondering if hell is truly everlasting or if some point in eternity, the punishment will end. I mean eternal punishment for a short life span hardly seems just and loving.
I do believe that people can live in hell in this life and we all know people who are in a living hell because of addiction or other troubles. They are trapped in a hell that they cannot escape on their own and only with the grace of God can they be freed. We can hope (as Rob does) that this experience of hell will turn them to God.
Which brings me to another point, I do not preach about hell very much (this is to my grandmother’s disappointment) but to be fair, I don’t preach about heaven very much either. The main reason is I do not understand hell or heaven enough to describe so my words would be inadequate. Instead, I approach the idea from a loving God full of grace and mercy. I do not believe in scaring people to God but rather loving people to God. The whole idea of “if you died right now, where would you spend eternity?” is not a fair thing to do to people. To me, that almost points to a vindictive God.
With all of my theological training, reading, and studying, I still cannot fully grasp hell. As I said above, I cannot fathom an everlasting hell of any sort. Lately, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is everlasting life in heaven and those who reject God truly die at the end of this life and are no more. I know this is not biblical so it is something that I wrestle with on my own and wonder about.
In the end, the true tragedy of hell is it is our choice. We have been given a choice by a loving God to choose God or reject God. It is a tragedy because God could make us all love God if God chose but instead we have the choice. Some people choose to love God and some people choose to reject God – that is the tragedy. However, throwing hell in people’s faces is not the best way to show them the love of God – that comes from entering into life and showing love to all people.
If it was possible, I am more in agreement with Rob Bell during this chapter than I was in the Preface and Chapter 1. He emphasizes a key idea about heaven that Christians often overlook. It seems that Christians want to view heaven as a reward at the end of this life and that is the sole focus of living – to get our sweet reward in the by and by when we die. We all know people who believe this and live their lives like this – they are the ones who seem to be detached from this world because they are already anticipating the next one. It is all about heaven for them and so they miss the big point of living in this life and in this world.
Are there other ways to think about heaven, other than as that perfect floating shiny city hanging suspended there in the air above that ominous red and black realm with all that smoke and steam and hissing fire?” I say yes, there are.
There is nothing to disagree with here. It is a great point and one worth considering as we look at what heaven means and what it is. The view of heaven I described above is not really the picture of heaven we find in scripture nor does it represent the purpose of heaven as outlined in scripture very well either. If you read N.T. Wright you will find that scripture seems to say that heaven (or eternal life) begins the moment we begin – that is heaven (and eternal life) are now.
I applaud Rob as he tackles the difficult task of looking at how mainstream Christianity interprets salvation and righteous living. At the beginning of the chapter, he offers this picture (well rather a similar one) that hung in his grandmother’s house:
This picture is used to sum up the Christian belief of salvation – without the cross, we could not enter into heaven. I will confess this troubles me because it brings us back to a vindictive God who sent Jesus to die as a sacrifice for our sins. When we view the world from this image, we forget that Jesus also lived a life and taught us how to live. Much of his ministry was spent trying to right the wrongs of the world – to spread justice, peace, and love. That he died for our sins is important but that he lived a life is equally important. Rob takes on that idea in this chapter – how to live and go to heaven.
Rob begins with eternal life and this is interesting. How do we define eternal life? Does it begin when we die or when we are born. I tend to think that I am already living eternal life as I will continue to live until I die and then I enter heaven. If we look at eternal life this way, then living in this world is equally as important as getting to heaven. We shouldn’t be so quick to rush through life and look forward to heaven – God made creation so creation is inherently good.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” – Revelation 21:1-5 (CEB)
So this is a bit of my interpretation based on what Rob said but I think it is worth considering. Recently I preached at a church that shall remain nameless (not Brenthaven CP Church) in which I overheard a conversation among church folks about someone who recently died. You know what was said but I will go ahead and repeat it: “He is in a better place than we are.” It seems that people are in a rush to die and go to heaven. Is that the way to live? It all comes down to how we interpret eternal life and Rob raises that question and idea. If accepting Jesus is enough, then why continue to live a good life or live at all? I am not suggesting that we need to do works to gain salvation but I think there is more to living than just waiting to die or looking forward to heaven.
So enough of my interpretation, let’s get back to the book. After looking at eternal life, Rob tackles heaven. He defines heaven as meaning one of three things: 1) a word used in place of God’s name for the Jews, 2) the “future coming together of heaven and earth” (p.58) or 3) our “present, eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.” (p.58-59).
All three are interesting ideas. In the Jewish tradition, God’s name was never spoken or written. The idea that heaven and God are one in the same is intriguing as it goes back to the Garden when humans lived as one with God. Incredible thought.Heaven and earth coming together is what Revelation shows happening (as I shared above). Ultimately, it is the place of God where God dwells with God’s people.
It is the third idea that seems to stir controversy. You probably won’t be surprised that I agree with Rob. I think eternal life has already started and I believe heaven can be experienced here and now. It is where God dwells and it is a place of joy, love, peace, where there is no pain or tears – I look forward to that but it comes back to this idea of this life. Jesus spent time teaching people how to live. Rob cites Luke 18 in which the rich young man is encouraged to sell his belongings and give to the poor. I have heard this sermon preached as what we are to do as Christians but I think a better interpretation is giving up things and learning to live. If this young man did not have the burden of keeping all of his things, he could begin to live fully in this world and experience heaven. That’s right, I agree that it is possible to experience glimpses of heaven in this life. When my daughter holds my hand unexpectedly; during a sunset; when my wife looks at me in a special way – all of these are moments when the line between heaven and earth are blurred.
It is interesting to note that in Matthew 19, Jesus tells the rich, young man that if he wants to enter into life (note it is not eternal life but life), he must sell his things. If you want to read it yourself, click here. That says something to me – life is more than we realize and we can have eternal life (ie “life”) now if we follow Jesus’ example and teachings.
NT Wright says that the Kingdom of God is “already not yet”. The Church is very good at showing that we are looking forward to the end when the Kingdom of God will be fully realized but the Church is lowsy about showing that the Kingdom of God is already happening (afterall the kingdom would happen when the dead were resurrected – ie Jesus).
The criticism leveled at Rob over this section is that people are reading that Rob suggests that heaven and eternal life are right now. While I think that my eternal life has already begun, I do not believe that I live in heaven. I think we can experience heaven to a degree in this life and I think this life is worth living. I will not agree with Rob all the way but I think the criticism is not warranted. Look at the recent events with Harold Camping in which his followers were so focused on the end that they were forgetting to live.
Okay, I have rambled all over this chapter so where does this leave us at this point. Good question. We have three things going on here if you boil it all down: You have eternal life that we aren’t waiting for because it begins when God renews and restores us as Christians and continues on after we die. We have talk about God’s kingdom and how it will break into this world and begin a new age. And we have heaven and how it fits into space and time. At the end of it all there were some good take away points about kingdom living and whether or not we are living lives that actually embrace God’s calling on us here and now. That is how I summarize this chapter. Controversial? Not really. Important? Absolutely.
So here we are at the first chapter. In the introduction, Rob Bell raised the purpose of his book and now he jumps right in. Through out this chapter, he raises some questions (and some are challenging). Among the questions are:
- How is one “saved”?
- Why some people and not others?
- Can a loving God send billions of people to hell?
- Is my salvation dependent on someone other than myself?
- What happens to someone who dies the day after they turn whatever age God has defined as the “age of accountability”? Would it have been different if they had died the day before?
- What happens to non-Christians who act more like Christians than some Christians?
- What if the Jesus someone gets presented does not accurately reflect the one we find in scripture? Is that their fault for not believing in Jesus if his followers don’t portray him properly?
- How is one saved…by faith or works or grace or a prayer or baptism?
As I said, they are challenging questions and not easily answered. The partial list above reflects questions I think we all ask from time to time. In my case, these are questions that I find my mind fixated on in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. I appreciate that Rob is willing to raise the questions in the light because we often do not discuss for various reasons: we don’t want to look ignorant; we don’t want to seem silly; and we don’t want to appear to lack faith. So it is from these questions that Rob jumps into the first chapter.
On page 3 he tells the story about a young woman who was killed in an accident. A Christian asks if she was a Christian. When they learn she was an atheist the Christian’s response is, “So there’s no hope.” From that statement Bell responds, “No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?” (p.3-4). Bell’s point is that there should be hope for all. This young lady did have hope. She had Jesus dying for her sins. She had God pulling for her to put her faith in Him. She had all kinds of hope if she would just recognize it. I know some people believe that rejected this hope but what if it was never presented to her? What if she wasn’t raised in the right environment? It goes back to the question/idea about whether my salvation is dependent on others or not? It is intriguing and worth considering.
I know criticism has been leveled at Rob because he chooses his scripture and his stories to advance his ideas (but don’t we all?). I mean he has laid out his intentions and now he is going to use scripture to support them. People criticize this but I call this exegesis and preaching. In the case of the young lady who supposedly died “without hope” there is a factor that people seem to ignore – we have no idea what happens at the moment of death. We have no idea what happens when we leave this existence. Perhaps there is a final moment of hope and in the case of this young lady, perhaps she made a choice to accept God at the very last moment of her life. We simply don’t know but we cannot think there is no hope.
I have read some other thoughts on this chapter and others have quoted scripture and pointed out that Jesus has said clearly that there is hope until death. They use this argument to attack Rob and his idea. What I see is a God that we cannot begin to fathom – a God who loves us beyond our understanding and will do anything to reach us. We cannot fully grasp this idea of God’s love so I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that there is no hope for someone.
I will admit that Rob does get into some murky ideas in this chapter. He ventures off the tried and true path of the clear gospel stories that teach about life and death. Another criticism leveled at Rob (and I don’t see it) is that people clearly got Jesus and completely understood everything he was about. Several people have cited the Gospel of John as an example of people understanding Jesus but let’s go back and read that again. It is not the case – too often people assumed they knew Jesus completely (and still do by the way) and so they know what he is talking about. I think the murky areas of the Bible are important because it is those areas that contradict what we think we know about Jesus and what Jesus is talking about. It is those areas that lead us to think and pray and reflect on God’s word and wrestle with what Jesus means.
At the end of the first chapter, I understand the controversy surrounding the book. Rob is laying out radical ideas that go against the grain. Having said that, I am agreeing with Rob so far in his ideas. I am not ready to condemn the “unsaved” to hell just yet. I am curious to see where he goes from here but I am agreeing with his direction and ideas so far.
Still keeping that open mind.
I am beginning with the preface in which Bell begins Love Wins by laying out some common ground with some thoughts few would disagree with:
First, I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.
Next, he gives us the overarching problem the book will address:
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories that Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
He goes on to say that this book is written as a response to a false gospel that would make anyone with common sense respond with, “I would never want to be a part of that.”
Most of you have probably experienced what Bell is talking about here. You have heard people make mountains out of mole hills on either end of the liberal-conservative spectrum. We know this happens. We can all agree this happens. I recently encountered somebody who has had this experience in her church. She felt the minister was out of touch with the world and with Jesus. It was as if the gospel was hijacked by this minister. Fair enough and I would wager that so many other people have had similiar experiences – the gospel of Jesus preempted by someone’s personal beliefs (of course, we all have a mind of our own and thus can simply choose to accept what someone preaches or give it some thought and decide whether it fits into our understanding of God).
So where does this leave Rob Bell. In the preface, he explicitly gives two reasons for offering this book. His first reason is:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
I could maybe see the controversy in this reasoning. Heaven and hell are taught extensively in the church and from the pulpit. It is something that does need to be taught but sometimes I think there is an overemphasis on both heaven and hell that people forget to live in this world (also created by God!). Rob emphasizes that heaven is for a “select few” and hell is a place where people have no choice. This statement and idea troubles me because it goes against my understanding of God as a loving-God. When you look at this way, it is like God is vindictive (and not judging with mercy) and unfair. It is difficult to sort out this idea of a God who uses hell as punishment but Rob says he will use scripture to help sort this out so I look forward to seeing how he fleshes it out.
The second reason for writing the book as offered by the author is:
Second, I have written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.
Rob is right. We bring up heaven and hell and people walk away from us. They do not want to have this dialogue with anyone and it closes doors. Jesus did not avoid the tough discussions and tough topics and I am glad that Rob is not either. I see Rob opening the door to a dialogue (controversial or not) about a topic that many people avoid discussing openly. He offers this final caveat at the end of the preface:
And then, last of all, please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.
So there is my opening thoughts on the preface. I am not seeing the controversy yet (OMG – maybe I am a universalist!) but then I also try to keep an open mind and it is just the preface so how much controversy can you have this early on. Tomorrow I am going to delve into the first chapter and see where it takes me. I am looking forward to sharing more as I go.
I am reading it with an open mind – but one that is excited never the less - and I want to see what Rob has to say. I welcome debate and dialogue and hope you will tune in and offer your thoughts. My understanding is that the book has created controversy but I think we need to talk instead and discuss what we don’t agree with. Again, I welcome feed back on my take of the book and look forward to future discussions as they arise.
My plan is to break the book down chapter by chapter and share my thoughts and feelings.
The end of the seminary journey is coming to a close but that does not mean the work is quite done. Here is a reflection on The Beloved Community by Charles Marsh for my class on holiness, hospitality, and justice.
In The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh traces the origins of the modern social justice movement from the early days of the Civil Rights movement to our current time. While I do not remember the Civil Rights era, I have read that the movement was actively seeking social justice for all people but then it seemed to have quieted down. Many wonder what happened. Charles Marsh attempts to answer that question, while arguing that the driving and sustaining force of that movement and its successors was the Christian faith of its leaders. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was faith-based, as its name indicates, and King had not only the rolling cadences but the theological training that made him such a charismatic and powerful leader.
Throughout the book, Marsh addresses the historical Civil Rights movement while looking at how those lessons can be applied to today. For some time, the marginalized of our society, the poor, and the lost have depended upon the government for support and help. Lately, religious leaders and Christians have been quick to abdicate government responsibility for providing those basic social services. By basic, this includes making housing, food, health care, and education available and affordable, choosing to support tax-cuts in hopes that they will encourage Christian organizations to fill the vacuum and provide for accountability of those programs by making their funding seem to be in constant jeopardy. There are some signs that the culture surrounding American privatization of social services is changing, as folks recognize that it is disingenuous at best to reflect on “government” as something extrinsic to Christian communities (and individuals). Rather, Christian activists are reconsidering whether they are also called to be involved in the process of government (lobbying doesn’t count here!) and that the church can be a part of the process of supplementing basic social infrastructure and encouraging accountability. To this end, Charles Marsh points out in his book:
“Even if all 355,000 religious congregations in America doubled their annual budgets and devoted them entirely to the cause of social services, and even if the cost of government social welfare programs was magically cut by one-fifth the congregations would barely cover a year’s worth of Washington’s spending on programs and never even come close to covering the program costs. Religious and private institutions do not have the resources to carry the burden of social compassion alone; to place that burden on religious institutions is to abdicate the legitimate responsibility of government” (203).
Marsh appears to argue and I agree that the government should be a source of social programs but the church needs to be involved as well. The government has the resources to provide for the social needs of the marginalized, however, the government does not always know the plight of these people. The church should direct the resources to where they are needed most. Many people want the government to be separate from the church but this partnership would help distribute resources (as the early church once did) to those who need them most.
Setting his reflections on public policy aside, Marsh also provides an insightful retelling of the history of nonviolent civil rights activism, reflecting on Martin Luther’s ascription, “The Beloved Community” as one of its aspirational goals. Marsh suggests, “the beloved community is the new social space of reconciliation introduced into history by the Church, empowered by the ‘triumph and beat of the drums of Easter’… The beloved community remains broken and scattered, an eschatological hope, yet precisely a hope that intensifies rather than absolves us from responsibilities in the here and now” (50).
It is interesting that Marsh addresses this aspect of the Beloved Community. In hoping for the Kingdom of God, we know that a better life will come one day. However, I like how Marsh addresses that we can either hope and do nothing or hope and do something. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement hoped for a Beloved Community while working towards it. There is a lesson for us in this – we need to look with hope to the future while we work in our part of the world to bring forth social change. Marsh provides in-depth analysis of Martin Luther King’s idea of nonviolence including Gandhi’s influence:
“King described the great epic of the cross as ‘the event’ that interprets the non-violent direct action. The practice of nonviolence exemplifies the event of the cross in lived experience; in other words, ‘the method of non-violent resistance’ embodies the meaning of the cross in the human struggle for justice. The cross is also the event that enables resistance, the power of the ‘non-violent resister suffer and not retaliate’; and further; the cross activates the mission of the church, its comprehensive retelling of the human story, its pursuit of the peaceable kingdom. No longer is the church solely in the business of saving individual souls from damnation, but it embodies the ‘great event’ of the cross by making free space for redemptive community” (45).
Marsh shows that Christianity and the Church should be more than just out to save the souls of sinners. While this is important work, Jesus also showed we need to work to change the world here and now. This is part of the eschatological hope of the Beloved Community – the Kingdom of God is breaking out among us now.
Despite all this helpful macro-political reflection, one little reflection has stuck with me the most firmly. Amidst some of my youthful zeal to participate in political change, Marsh resurrected an important insight from the longer-winded and more mature civil rights movement: “This is an important but often overlooked point. It is easy to forget that so much of a civil rights life involved sitting around freedom houses, community centers, and front porches with no immediate plan of action” (93). It is interesting that we remember the Civil Rights movement as being a period of great social activity yet, according to Marsh, much of the time was spent sitting around with plan of action. I interpret this as prayer and listening for the word of God. No matter what endeavor we wish to undertake, we need to do it with prayer and holy guidance. To some it may appear that the Civil Rights movement involved sitting around and doing nothing but to me, it appears they listened for a word from God and then followed the word as it lead them.
Speaking to his supporters at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that their common goal was not simply the end of segregation as an institution. Rather, “the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community.” King’s words reflect the strong religious convictions that motivated the civil rights movement in the South in its early days. Standing courageously on the Judeo-Christian foundations of their moral commitments, civil rights leaders sought to transform the social and political realities of twentieth-century America. In The Beloved Community, Charles Marsh shows that the same spiritual vision that animated the civil rights movement remains a vital source of moral energy today.
Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility explores how communities are using prayer as they attempt to respond faithfully to complex social issues—whether war in distant lands, strikes by laborers, stem cell research, or any of a number of other issues—especially when they are divided on the issue confronting them. Claire Wolfteich does not provide easy answers or blueprints for prayerful discernment concerning the social justice issues she explores. Instead, she presents six carefully researched case studies of Christian communities who prayerfully considered the issue before them; in doing so, she provokes thought about the place and power of prayer in social justice decision-making processes. Among the stories she examines are those of prayerful antiapartheid leaders in South Africa, farm worker advocate Cesar Chavez and his followers, participants in pro-life rallies outside abortion clinics, and a Miami congregation divided over the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
The congregational church in Miami immediately caught my attention. The pastor of the church, Donna Schaper, wanted to use her position in the church to live out her interpretation of following the gospel. This is not unusual as many pastors do shape, or at least attempt to shape, the mission of the church s/he serves. In this particular case, a liberal-minded pastor served a moderately conservative congregation who engaged in social work in the community but not to the extent, that Rev. Schaper wished. Tension developed and the congregation struggled. While the pastor, along with some members, continued to push the congregation towards social justice, other members resisted because they did not like the direction.
As I considered this tension, I realized we all have specific calls from God that may or may not match up with others. Each side in this case believed they were doing the right thing. Where does this leave a church or individual? I believe there are times when we have to follow the will of God even if we are against the norm or against those who love us. This particular story is a great example of what it means to work for justice in the world because it shows that there are times when we must do it alone.
However, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the pastor of this church toned back her activism or at least slowed it down. If she took the process slower, encouraged the congregation, and engaged them in prayer, would things have worked out differently? I think this is something to be considered as more people can make a bigger impact. I believe we need to weigh our convictions for justice with those around us and determine the best approach to work towards the end. Alienating those who can help you is not always the best approach.
The South African movement to pray for justice is an example of gathering people to your side and convincing them of your conviction to work for justice. While there were some opposed to praying for justice and the end of apartheid, many agreed it was a good approach. It was a risky move as politics and religion were coming together but seeking justice is not without risks. This raises some questions for me. I wonder when the need for justice outweighs the risks. When do we, in the first example, go out on our own to seek justice for others?
As I was reading the book, the events in Egypt were unfolding on live television. The people were seeking justice for their lives against an oppressive government. As I write this paper, missiles and bombs are falling in Libya as the world seeks justice for those who are attempting to do the same thing. I wonder what our responsibility to the world is. Where do we step in and do something to help others find justice. Are our actions in Libya worth the risk as we work to stop oppression? These are not easy questions to face. In South Africa, the ministers had to face the possibility of inciting riots and violence though their prayers but the greater good was at stake. What is the greater good in Egypt or Libya? Are the bombs worth it?
I find myself in a unique position. I serve as a chaplain in the US Army – an organization that to the world is not just or justice seeking. I wonder what my role in all of this is. Do I conform and live the mission because I am a member of the Army? On the other hand, do I risk my career and speak out for justice and peace. There is risk involved and I have to weigh my risks. I can speak for peace and justice and face the possibility of being forced out of the Army. If this were to happen, I would be free to protest and criticize military action while seeking peace and justice. However, I could not minister to those who are in the Army and charged with making war. They need an advocate; they need someone to care for them pastorally; and they need chaplains. In this case, I have to accept the need to keep quiet when I do not agree with something in order to work for inside for the greater good. I weighed the risks and they are not worth it in my opinion.
The author closes the book with a look at specifically praying for justice and conviction. The examples I cited above and my own personal experiences would be moot if they did not involve deep prayer. In a sermon in the Duke University Chapel, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about praying until we have worn holes in the carpet. As we seek to do justice in the world and find our role in work of justice, we need to engage in this sort of prayer. We need to pray to be convicted of the work of justice.
However, we reach a point when we have prayed enough; we reach a point when the answer is clear; and we reach a point when God says, “go”. At this point, we need to go and do justice in the world. Rev. Schaper and her church prayed over their mission of justice in the world and while I do not know if they prayed holes in the carpet, they felt they were convicted of their calling. They worked as if their conviction was right. The ministers in South Africa prayed for guidance and when they were convicted, they worked for justice. I have prayed holes in the carpet as I sought God’s will for my chaplaincy and now I work for justice as God has called me.
The work of justice in the world is never easy. However, if we work for justice out of our own personal motives, we will find insurmountable obstacles that prevent us from accomplishing what we seek to do. If we work for justice our of a conviction from God, we will find insurmountable obstacles but we will have the ability to work around those obstacles.
In recent years, the United States has been characterized not only as a highly religious nation, but also as one undergoing a resurgence of spirituality. There is much discussion in both the media and academe about what this means. “Religion” is usually understood to be social, collective, and institutional-based. “Spirituality,” on the other hand, is considered as an emotional and individual practice that borrows from a variety of religious traditions to create a unique devotional system. While scholars have long recognized the importance that religion and religious organizations have played in social activism, they have typically seen spirituality as a private matter with few practical implications. In Engaged Spirituality, the author moves away from religion and looks at how spirituality shapes the lives of people and encourages them to think beyond themselves. The author seems to believe that religion is not the end source of living but rather spirituality in something greater than we are.
Stanczak opens his book with a study of the difference between religion and spirituality. In the modern culture, the words are often used interchangeably but they do have different meanings. The very understanding of these terms makes it difficult to grasp as each person has a different understanding of what it means to be religious and what it means to be spiritual. While the words religion and spirituality are often incorrectly used interchangeably, an important distinction exists between spirituality in religion and spirituality as opposed to religion. In recent years, spirituality as opposed to religion often carries connotations of a believer having a faith more personal, less dogmatic, more open to new ideas and myriad influences, and more pluralistic than the doctrinal/dogmatic faiths of mature religions. It also can connote the nature of believers’ personal relationship or “connection” with their god(s) or belief-system(s), as opposed to the general relationship with a Deity as shared by all members of a given faith. Those who speak of spirituality as opposed to religion generally believe in the existence of many “spiritual paths” and deny any objective truth about the best path to follow. Rather, adherents of this definition of the term emphasize the importance of finding one’s own path to whatever-god-there-is, rather than following what others say works. In summary: the path, which makes the most coherent sense, becomes the correct one (for oneself). However, just as aspects of spirituality can be found in many religions and traditions, spirituality based on spiritual practice rather than belief, with the aim simply of developing inner peace, is another option. This secular spirituality is consistent with holding any supernatural belief, or importantly with holding none.
Having defined religion and spirituality and offering specific differences between them, Stanczak begins to explore how we can cultivate our spiritual practices. According to the author, it would appear that spirituality is a quest to find your true self. This is your deeper self—the person you are inside without the distractions of the world. While Stanczak does not directly address this, it is my understanding that in our world we are distracted by technology, time, and noise – all of which keep us from a deeper understanding of our personal spirituality. Again, while the author does not specifically deal with certain aspects, from other readings, I believe there is a greater chance that you will discover your true self if you remove many of the material things (or at least diminish your dependence upon them) that can hinder the discovery of your inner self.
However, I think spirituality is deeper than simply understanding how we view material things. We also need to begin thinking about your existence and how you are related to the universe in general. This is not an easy task to do, because of the fact that there are so many distractions in our daily lives. One way of doing this is by studying relaxation and meditation techniques, so that you can be at peace with yourself and with your surroundings, while being able to return to the rigors of daily life. When you are relaxed, you can begin to think about why humans are vastly different from animals or from any other creature or living thing on this planet. Learning how to think critically is also helpful in this respect. At the same time, while thinking about how you are different from the rest of the creatures of this planet, it is also worth your while thinking about how you are related to the rest of creation, and what your place in all of creation really is. Many more questions and issues then come to mind. If you are able to find your place in all of creation, then what is the purpose of your existence in it? Thus from here, you are able to define what your purpose in life really is, and why you are on this earth. It is through meditation and reflection that you are able to discover your true self.
Of course if one focuses solely on spirituality and not on religion then one would be in error. Religion does play a part in our spiritual life as it gives us rules and a framework in which to believe. Religion allows like-minded individuals to come together in a framework of belief and worship God and establish rules of belief. It is, however, those rules that often prevent one from fully exploring one’s spirituality. For the past several hundred years, religious systems persecuted anyone who did not follow the norm or the rules. Certain ideas of spirituality and practices of spirituality were avoided and banned. However, in recent years, many people have turned back to various methods of spirituality to find not only themselves but find a deeper relationship with God. As people find a deeper relationship with God, they begin to understand themselves and their purpose and this in turn leads to a desire to serve God. The result as we have seen throughout history is the Bonhoeffers, Kings, Gandhis, and countless others who go against mainstream religion as they follow their own spirituality.
God is love, says the Bible (I John 4:8). That sums up what Christianity is all about. This is the grace I say at dinner: “Love is God.” Love is all there really is to the Christian religion – the rest is commentary. Christianity is simple and beautiful. God is love. Jesus loved. He loved Love itself with all his heart and mind, he loved his neighbor as himself, he even loved his enemies, and he taught people to do the same. Being a Christian is about trying to love the way Jesus loved. It is not about obeying a bunch of fussy rules from the Bronze Age, accepting a bunch of dogmatic beliefs, and spouting a bunch of obscure doctrines. It is not about believing the unbelievable. It is about something much harder and much more worthy of the challenge and that is to love - even the unlovable.
A review of this book as found on amazon.com is the best way to close this reflection: “In an age when Madonna studies Kabbalah, Methodists create home altars with Kwan Yin statues, and the internet is bringing Buddhism to the white middle-class, it is clear that formal religious belonging is no longer enough. Stanczak’s critical examination of spirituality provides us with a way of discussing the factors that impel individuals into social activism and forces us to rethink the question of how “religion” and “spirituality” might be defined. We know the rules of religion no longer work as we continue to explore our spirituality – in the end, our relationship with our Creator is ultimately the best guidance for our life.
Here is a reflection and review of Picking Cotton that I did for a seminary class. It is a difficult book to read but one that is worth your time. It will challenge your assumptions about guilt and forgiveness.
I found the topic of the book to be difficult to process because it is a reality of our society – both rapes and wrongful imprisonment. It seems that both topics are issues our culture does not wish to deal with as they are often ignored. I am
My initial reaction to the book was a reaction of dread. As I read the title and the description as listed on amazon.com, I expected a book that was going to be dominated by a large amount of bitterness and prejudice with a small amount of redemption and forgiveness. With that in mind, I began to read the book with an opinion already formed and then I was pleasantly surprised as I began to read. I found myself absorbed by the story of the events as they unfolded and captivated by the redemption and forgiveness.
As I reflect on the book, I was most surprised by Ronald’s forgiveness of Jennifer. Of all the people who would deserve to be angry and want justice, Ronald would be the one yet he forgave Jennifer early in the process. I am not sure that I would be able to offer that kind of forgiveness to someone who committed an injustice against me – especially one that cost eleven years of my life.
On the other hand, I am also surprised at Jennifer’s seeming inability to forgive herself for what she did to Ronald. I would find myself reacting in a similar manner to Jennifer – and perhaps it is human nature – that I cannot forgive myself for harming another person. I find myself wondering if her advocacy for those who are wrongly imprisoned is not some form of penance. I believe that is also human nature to seek to do something to make up for our wrongs.
The idea that we have to do something to be forgiven is a false idea and I think this is a teachable part of this book. In our culture and our society, we have a belief that you have to do something to be forgiven. I see this in my daughter’s pre-school – she has to say, “I’m sorry” to someone so she can be forgiven. I see this on talk shows (when I watch them) where someone is asked what they will do to be forgiven. It seems that we are teaching that we have to do something to be forgiven from an early age but there is another side to this issue. We also teach that someone has to do something for you to receive your forgiveness. It goes both ways. If we want forgiveness, we must offer a penance yet if we want to forgive; someone has to make it up to us. This is a theme in our culture/society – every action needs to have an equal or opposite action to be acceptable. Again, while I may be reading into Jennifer’s actions too much, I do believe it is a lesson we can learn – forgiveness is simply free to give and free to receive.
I also noticed that Jennifer became consumed with vengeance and not justice. It seems her actions were controlled by her desire to see Ronald punished for his crimes. She was not seeking justice and the hatred in her slowly consumed her during the course of the trials. In Amish Grace, there was an idea that if we allow our anger to control us, we will be destroyed. This theme plays out in Star Wars as well when we see young Anakin slowly consumed by anger and the failure to forgive. I believe Jennifer’s actions are partially motivated by a sense of seeking justice but more likely she was controlled by a desire for revenge at all costs. In considering Jennifer’s actions, I realize that forgiveness is for our own personal benefit as much as for the other person. When we offer forgiveness, we are freeing ourselves from the consuming anger and the desire for revenge. We may always remember the event but we will not be destroyed by the event.
I cannot help but offer more comparisons between Amish Grace and Picking Cotton. In the first book, I encountered theories behind the practice of forgiveness within one community and the lessons we could learn from them. In Picking Cotton, I read a firsthand account of those lessons as they played out in the lives of real people (not that the Amish are not but we did not have the full first hand story). It was interesting to read the thoughts of two people before and after they shared and experienced forgiveness. While Amish Grace was a worthy book to consider and the practice of Amish forgiveness is a goal worth reaching for, the forgiveness in Picking Cotton is realistic because the people involved are in many ways just like us. It is not an abstract cultural ideal but real life application of the principles of forgiveness. The practice of forgiveness by Jennifer and Ron could happen between any people in our culture without a complete change of culture or practice. I appreciate that example of possible forgiveness.
I began this reflection by suggesting I approached the book with nothing short of dread. However, after reading the book several times, I will admit there are lessons still to be unpacked and learned. The ideas and lessons suggested in this brief reflection are just a small portion of what the pages of the book hold. I will continue to read and reflect and process through the lessons and strive to incorporate them in my own practices of forgiveness.
To begin, I have to confess some familiarity with the Amish. My family still lives in areas considered “Amish country” and I have had some experiences during my undergraduate work in Amish schools. In addition, I am familiar with the location of the former Nickel Mines School. As a result, I am bringing certain biases to the reading of this book. Despite those biases, I found the book to be powerful and profound at the same time. Over the course of this paper, I will reflect on what Amish Grace has taught me about forgiveness in general as well as challenging my own views to my standards for forgiveness.
The story truly begins with the moment of the shootings and that is where a reflection must begin – for without the shooting, Amish grace would not come to the attention of the world. I confess that I agree with the authors when they say they “were searching for a place one hopes never to be searching for” – an Amish school where a shooting took place. The Amish, in my mind, represent innocence as well values that American society often seems to lack. They live out their lives according to their beliefs and for the most part keep in their own community rather than interact with the rest of the world. It seems that our culture in general is quick to blame others for something – anything really – rather than either accept the blame or seek forgiveness. With Charles Roberts, he was angry with God and rather than confront God or himself, he chose to take his anger out on Amish girls. My first reaction to Roberts is to consider him a coward but then I have never experienced that kind of anger. I cannot imagine what kind of anger would drive him to that point but whatever was in his mind, his actions brought about the need for Amish grace.
In reading the book, it would seem that many people assumed the Amish were naive and simply forgave Charles Roberts because they have a fatalistic view of life – as in this was simply God’s will and they are merely puppets. I do not believe that this is the case because the Amish forgave Roberts so his actions did not destroy their community. Their forgiveness did not mean they did not grieve or mourn – they would have to grieve and mourn given what happened to their children and loved ones. Their forgiveness did not mean they would forget his actions because how could you forget such an event. Instead, their forgiveness meant that his actions would not define who they are or how they would act. They would not let Roberts change them or allow his actions to consume them. In other words, despite this tragedy, their beliefs in God as Amish would continue because of this act of forgiveness.
In our modern culture, we are defined not by who we are but rather by how others see us. As is often the case, we let others define who were by their actions towards us. As this relates to Amish Grace, we let the wrongs of others consume our lives to the point that we cease to live and are consumed with anger and grief. In our society, forgiveness is such a radical concept because we would rather think thoughts of revenge and anger rather than let go of those feelings and move on. The lesson we can take from the Amish, in this case, is that they refused to compromise their beliefs or life to the killer of their children. They understand that by forgiving, they are letting go of the feelings (as was noted in the video during class – anger destroys community) and growing and healing as a community. It is a lesson our modern world could take.
The Amish hold a lot of stock in the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer as it is found in Matthew 6. These words are almost defining of what it means to be Amish. Forgiveness focuses on a specific passage from Matthew 6: 14For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: 15But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. –Matthew 6:14-15 (KJV)
It does say if you forgive first, then God will forgive you. That is right. We have to forgive to be forgiven. This put things into perspective. The common belief is that we forgive others God has forgiven us and we are comfortable with that – we are simply reciprocating something that has been given to us. However, read that verse and it seems we will not be given forgiveness unless we forgive first. In other words, God will reciprocate our forgiveness. That is tough to swallow but that is what scripture says. So what is a person to do with that? I think it is clear as the Amish practice forgiveness. We have to forgive others; we have no choice. We cannot receive something from God that we will not give to others.
A distinction has to be made as one considers Amish grace. While the Amish offered forgiveness to Roberts (and by extension to the Roberts family though that gesture had different meanings), it did not mean that the Amish pardoned his actions. The authors suggest that had Roberts not committed suicide, the Amish would have desired justice to be served but not revenge.
Forgiveness is not easy. We see it as a sign of weakness but in considering Amish style forgiveness, it is not a weakness but strength. It takes strength to say that we are not going to let something consume us, control us, and change us. The Amish will not be defined by this tragedy. It will not change how they live or believe because forgiveness is part of their life. On the other hand, I think it is a weakness (because it is easier) to let our anger and bitterness consume us rather than forgive. It is much easier to stew and seethe than to stand up and forgive.
The authors suggest that though we may wish to emulate the Amish in their model of forgiveness, it is not easy. It seems that the Amish have a five hundred year history of forgiveness incorporated into their beliefs. I find this troubling that as Christians we cannot say that we have a two thousand year history of forgiveness incorporated into our beliefs. In any case, the Amish culture is conducive to group forgiveness while the mainstream American culture is conducive to thoughts of revenge and punitive justice. I have to admit the authors are right in this sense. There is no way the idea of blanket forgiveness, as demonstrated by the Amish, could ever occur in mainstream culture. As was noted in the book, the public, and especially the media, were suspicious of the Amish forgiveness and began to question their beliefs and their culture. I would imagine if we began to follow their ideals, the same thing would occur. Instead, I think that we, as church leaders, need to begin to stand up and question how justice is served and to encourage a change in cultural beliefs from one of revenge to one of love and forgiveness. This cultural change will not come easy or fast but if anything can come out of an understanding of Amish forgiveness, it is that a change in our culture is necessary.
The Amish seemed to be viewed as “simple” because of their lifestyle choices and lack of technology. Perhaps the moniker fits and they are a people who choose to live simply rather than face the bustle of our lifestyle. Perhaps the Amish are not so simple after all but have a good perspective on a life that we should look into and consider.